Specific papers provide sufficient information for audiences to understand the central arguments of the paper.
At the level of a paper, specificity means that audiences have enough information to understand the paper (i.e. the paper is self-contained). However, how can an author predict what information an audience needs to understand the argument?
Among the steps that can help authors design a paper to be accessible to audiences are: (1) define the audience; and (2) define all necessarily terminology.
(1) Define the audience.
Clear scientific communication involves using the simplest vocabulary possible to express ideas. One reason to use a simple vocabulary for science is that scientific audiences are potentially very broad. English is currently the standard language (ironically "lingua franca") for for the international enterprise of science. Therefore, scientific papers will potentially have the largest impact if they are written using vocabulary accessible to both native and non-native English readers.
Even when using the simplest English language possible, authors of scientific papers must make decisions about the concepts and technical terms that require valuable text to define or explain. Therefore, selecting a target audience is an important part of planning and outlining a paper.
Clearly, audiences that differ in age, experience, or other respects require different approaches to communication. Here, I will limit discussion to one common audience: the scientific community. The scientific community includes likely readers of archival publications as well as instructors in college-level science courses. Therefore, the scientific community is a large and relevant audience. Moreover, many other resources are available for improving scientific writing in other contexts (Brownell et al., 2013).
One rule of thumb for selecting an audience in the scientific community is: write for scientists in a different field of science.
Writing for scientists implies that you do NOT need to define concepts and terminology that broadly-trained scientists can be expected to understand. We can reasonably expect that broadly-trained scientists will understand mathematical concepts, Newton's laws of physics, evolution and natural selection, stoichiometry, and other basic principles of the natural sciences. We can also reasonably expect that scientists will be familiar with statistical tests and their interpretation. Therefore, we do not need to define concepts and terminology that are included in basic scientific knowledge.
Writing for scientists in a different field of science implies that authors are responsible for defining all concepts and terminology that are NOT included in basic scientific knowledge.
However, students may object that there is no way for them to know what to expect of broadly-trained scientists, because the students are not (yet) broadly-trained scientists themselves! The objection is completely reasonable.
Therefore, one rule of thumb to help students select an appropriate audience is: write for students who would be reading a paper at the very beginning of a course. Terminology that students can reasonably be expected to enter the course knowing (e.g. from prerequisites) may not need to be defined. However, any terminology that was introduced during the course requires definition.
APPLICATION: Clear scientific papers use simple language accessible to ALL audiences. Specifically identifying a target audience can help identify which technical concepts and terms must be identified to understand the paper.
2) Define all necessary terminology.
Writing for people in a different field of science means that you DO need to define concepts and terminology that broadly-trained scientists outside your field can not reasonably be expected to know. For example, the concepts of "interleaved," "serial," or "blocked" practice are specific to fields that study learning (e.g. linguistics, motor learning, education, etc.). Even if you planned to submit a paper to an academic journal in one of these fields, it remains important to define concepts that scientists in other fields would not be expected to know. Defining terms is useful for at least three reasons:
1) Defining terms helps the author control the meaning of each term, preventing confusion if there are multiple definitions for a term.
2) Defining terms can help the authors consistently use terminology. For academic work, defining terms can help students demonstrate their understanding of each term and correctly use each term in a written assignment.
3) Defining terms helps to make research more accessible to a broad range of scientists..
Two practices can help ensure that important terminology are defined:
A) Use the principle of reverse-engineering to identify terms and concepts that must be defined and defended. Starting with conclusions, identify the definitions and concepts necessary to understand the conclusion. Sentences, paragraphs, or even entire sub-sections may be necessary to define and defend important concepts.
For example, if the general hypothesis for a paper reads "Our general hypothesis is that perceptual adaptation is due to recalibration and not to strategic adjustments during throwing tasks," the hypothesis suggests that the paper must define the terms "perceptual adaptation," "recalibration," and "strategic adjustments."
B) Build definitions into repeated frameworks. Definitions rarely stand on their own, but usually support larger arguments. Therefore, at the level of a paper, reverse-engineering definitions can simply become part of a more comprehensive process to reverse-engineer arguments to ensure that the arguments strongly support conclusions.
For example, a general conclusion (Conclusion 1) could depend on three different lines of evidence. We could choose to use one paragraph to defend each line of evidence.
The example of the causes of perceptual adaptation might involve a structure such as:
APPLICATION: Repeating frameworks that include definitions can help to ensure that important concepts and terminology are defined before use.